October 13, 2023
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The M249S Para from Fabrique Nationale is the semiauto version of the US military’s longest-serving 5.56x45mm belt-fed light machinegun. The gun is universally referred to as the SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon). The M249S Para sports a 16.1-inch barrel and weighs 16 pounds empty. It feeds from a 200-round linked belt or a standard STANAG M-4 magazine. The trigger pull ranges between eight and 15.5 pounds. It also sports an MSRP of $11,094. There is nothing the semiauto M249S Para SAW can do that a $550 M-4 won’t do more efficiently. Then why are these bulky monstrous guns still tough to find? Spoiler alert—because they’re just so freaking cool.
M249 War Story
Specialist 4 Diego Martinez had previously been terrified. Now he was just angry. SP4 Martinez was assigned as a SAW gunner with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. At 0210 on the morning of 20 December 1989, he and his mates jumped from US Air Force C141 transports into Panama’s Omar Torrijos International Airport. Theirs was the first large-scale American airborne assault since World War II. The jump had been low and fast, and Martinez had hit the tarmac like a sack of bricks. That was the terrifying part. Then the Dingbats started shooting at him. That just made him mad. Dingbats was the derogatory term US troops used for the Panamanian Dignity Battalions, loosely-organized bands of uniformed thugs who terrorized both Panamanians and foreigners alike at the behest of the pineapple-faced drug-running psychopath General Manuel Noriega. The American paratroopers were taking heavy fire from both the airport terminal as well as surrounding fighting positions. Panamanian antiaircraft guns posed the greatest threat to the assault, but American air assets pulverized those in short order. Now, the biggest headache was from Panamanian troops with small arms. SP4 Martinez and his buddies could deal with that.
Real war was not like training, but it was close enough. It had taken time to reach the terminal area, and the sun was now coming up. Martinez’ Platoon Leader organized his men and assaulted the terminal via fire and maneuver, just like they had practiced countless times. The young soldier’s lightweight belt-fed machinegun still weighed 22 pounds fully loaded and was unproven in combat, but he nonetheless liked it. The capacity to spit 5.56mm bullets at a cyclic rate of 850 rounds per minute made him feel invincible. In concert with rest of his unit, SP4 Martinez bounded across the tarmac until he reached the terminal building. As luck would have it, Martinez was first to reach the locked utility door. If they were to silence the Panamanian fire coming from the building they had first to gain access. In the heat of the moment nobody could locate any demo, and frag grenades wouldn’t do the job. The Platoon Leader briefly considered trying to strap a claymore mine to the door. In frustration, SP4 Martinez just directed his buddies to get behind him and seek cover. Once his mates were clear, Martinez hefted his fully-loaded SAW to his hip, oriented on the door, and torqued back on the trigger.
SP4 Martinez continued firing until his gun ran dry, 200 rounds later his ears screamed, and the steel utility door looked like a colander. Sergeant Bass moved up with a small sledge and unleashed all his fury against the thing. That gave Martinez time to reload his SAW. The door gave way in short order, and the American paratroopers poured into the terminal building like ants. Forty-three days later Noriega was headed for an American Supermax prison, and democracy reigned supreme in Panama. SP4 Martinez eventually left the Army once his enlistment was up, but he took with him enough stories to keep his grandchildren entertained for the rest of time.
My first recollection of the M249 SAW was news footage of somebody using one to blow a door off its hinges during Operation Just Cause, the 1989 American invasion of Panama. The tidy bit of fiction above was drawn from my memories of that video news report. Back in the late Mesozoic when I wore the uniform I got to run the gun myself. Each unit to which I was assigned had a few, and I spent a year as an Aviation Liaison Officer with a Light Infantry Brigade. In this capacity, I lived with the infantry, eventually becoming intimately familiar with the grunt life. As an Army aviator with an addiction to guns was a fairly rare beast, my grunt buddies saw to it I got as much trigger time as I could stand.
Our SAW’s sported 18.5-inch barrels and polymer buttstocks. The Para SAW with its stubbier tube and collapsible stock came later. I never had a stoppage with a SAW firing belted ammo, though I do recall that the magazine feed on GI guns was sometimes a bit dicey. However, infantrymen are merciless on their equipment. The grunts with whom I worked liked and respected the weapon. We had cut our teeth on the M-60 GPMG (General Purpose Machinegun), and the M249 wasn’t nearly so heavy. While the M249 weighed 22 pounds fully loaded, the M-60 was 23 pounds empty. The development of the M249 SAW was shaped by American combat experience in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War the M-60 served in the Squad Automatic Weapon role because there was no better alternative. The WW1-vintage Browning Automatic Rifle was way long in the tooth, and the M-14E2 was a stopgap at best. While the M-60 was generally adored in the ‘Nam for its reliability and ferocious firepower, the Pig was an undeniable butt-whooping to hump. We needed something lighter and handier. The road to the M29 SAW has been an interesting trek.
Starting around 1957, each rifle squad was assigned a Designated Rifleman. This lucky stud was issued with a selective-fire M-14, often the M-14E2 with pistol grip stock, bipod, and muzzle brake, and was trained to lay down full auto suppressive fire to support an assault. Given the fixed barrel and 20-round box magazine of the M14E2, this just never worked well. This realization led to the generous distribution of the heavy M-60 belt-fed GPMG. In the mid-1960’s, the US Navy SEALs fielded small numbers of belt-fed 5.56x45mm Stoner 63 light machineguns. The Stoner 63 was a truly modular, inspired design. A single common Stoner receiver could be configured as an assault rifle, a short-barreled carbine, a magazine-fed support weapon that fed from the top like a Bren, and the aforementioned belt-fed gun. Alas, the Stoner 63 was expensive and complicated, but it still planted a seed. In 1970, the US Army designated the Stoner 63 the XM207 and conducted limited trials with certain operational Special Forces units. The SEALs continued to use their Stoners into the 1980’s. There were around 4,000 of these guns produced in total.
In 1974, the Army conducted testing of three candidates for a 5.56x45mm Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW). Colt offered a heavy-barreled version of the standard M16 that was still magazine-fed. HK submitted their roller-delayed HK 23A1. FN offered their Minimi, a stamped receiver belt-fed 5.56x45mm gun inspired by their extraordinary MAG gun. The trials sputtered on for the rest of the decade. In May of 1980, the FN offering was selected as the winner with a modified HK gun running a close second. After a few tweaks to the design, the FN Minimi was formally adopted in February of 1982 as the M249 SAW. The first copies made it to US Army units in 1984. The Marines got theirs a year later. FN built a factory in Columbia, South Carolina, to produce the weapons. In 2016, Uncle Sam was paying $4,087 apiece for them. The M249 has seen action in every major conflict in which American forces have been involved from Panama to the present. Along the way, the gun has been continuously tweaked and upgraded. The US Marine Corps began supplementing the M249 with the M-27 Infantry Automatic Rifle in 2009. In 2022, the Army selected the SIG XM-250 as a replacement for the M-249 SAW.
The military M249 fires from the open bolt and is gas operated. The gun feeds 5.56x45mm ammunition primarily via M27 disintegrating linked belts. There is a disposable 200-round rigid plastic case or a soft canvas carrier affectionately referred to as a nut sack that affixes to the gun to help keep the belts in order. Nut sacks can be had in both 100- and 200-round versions. There is an ancillary magazine well mounted at an angle on the left side of the weapon that will accept standard STANAG M-4 magazines. A nifty sheet steel dust cover pivots in automatically when a magazine is loaded and serves as its own magazine catch. Barrels pop on and off readily without tools to support sustained fire operations. They are rifled one turn in seven inches and are available in both 16.1- and 18.5-inch versions. The standard fixed stock is formed from rugged polymer, while there are two different collapsible options. The early version sports an aluminum strut stock that both rotates and collapses. The later variant is more akin to that of the M-4 carbine.
The original para stock is the coolest of the lot. To extend it just give the buttplate a tug and then a twist. The stock settles into position of its own accord. To collapse the stock just tug it backwards, give it a twist, and push it forward. There is a heavy wire shoulder rest built into the buttplate. These guns are equipped with a folding pressed steel bipod and generous polymer forearm. There are naturally railed versions available as well. There is also a length of Picatinny rail on the top cover for optics. The front part of the receiver has a mounting lug for a vehicle pintle or tripod. The full-length barrel will actually fire rifle grenades should the spirit so lead. The standard M249 was subsequently developed into the M249 SPW (Special Purpose Weapon) which itself became the Mk 46 used by the US Special Operations Command. While there were several minor adjustments made to the gun to earn this new nomenclature, the biggest departure from the original was the deletion of the carrying handle, the tripod mounting lugs, and the secondary magazine well. These changes dropped the gun’s empty weight from 17 to 13 pounds.
The FN M249S Para comes in two broad flavors. The standard gun features the fixed polymer stock and long 18.5-inch barrel. The M249S Para has the shorter 16.1-inch tube along with the collapsible tubular aluminum buttstock. Both guns can be had in either black or FDE. The M249S is identical to the military gun except that it fires from the closed bolt and includes a block welded into the receiver to exclude the GI full auto parts. The adaptation of the M249S to semiautomatic is fairly fascinating for the gun nerd committed to his craft. This is a striker-fired weapon wherein a cube-shaped, spring-loaded weight slides behind the bolt to be caught by the sear. This striker has its own drive spring. The modified fire control unit sports a crossbolt safety and is obviously semiauto only.
Let’s just come right out and say it. The FN M249S Para is arguably the most impractical firearm I have ever seen, and that’s saying a lot. Fully loaded with 200 rounds the gun weighs as much as five and one half standard baked clay bricks. The belt-feed mechanism is slower to load than the magazines in your favorite M-4, though 200 rounds does admittedly last a good long time. Additionally, the trigger pull is measured in short tons. Despite its impracticality, the M249S Para just oozes sex appeal. It’s tough to capture in prose exactly what that means. However, whatever makes a gun cool, the M249S Para has it in spades. Drag this puppy out at the local range and be prepared to have more friends than you can stand. Nobody cares how much the gun weighs or that it has a stiff thick trigger. Everybody just wants selfies with it that they can post on social media. The M249S Para could make Peewee Herman look cool. Trust me when I tell you, this gun will reliably set your heart aflutter.
The gun, particularly the M249S Para version, is admittedly nice and maneuverable. Up close, it is markedly smaller and shorter than you might expect. The buttstock is rigid when extended and inconspicuous when collapsed. The workmanship and execution are superb throughout. Unlike most of the guns available at your local gun emporium, this is a genuine military design built by one of the most respected producers of combat weapons on the planet. Any yahoo can claim their products are milspec. FN is the real freaking deal. Accuracy is…interesting. The test gun was completely reliable with belts as well as both standard aluminum M-4 magazines and P-Mags. The built-in bipod makes for a nice stable firing platform.
The M249S was not originally designed to do what it does. This is a mechanical adaptation of an open-bolt fully automatic belt-fed machinegun. This weird parentage manifests in lots of little ways. You cannot retract the bolt unless the safety is off. Failure to do so will lock up the action. Ask me how I know this. The trigger pull is indeed heavy, but serviceable. Every time you fire the M249S Para there is a lot of steel moving back and forth, markedly more than is the case with your favorite black rifle. However, I could still keep my 100-meter groups at around four inches so long as I did my part. Though it shoots plenty straight, this is not a sniper rifle. The M249S Para is the gun that drops you into Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and just leaves you there. Whatever this thing lacks in practicality it more than makes up for in awesome.
The MSRP for the standard M-249S is a whopping $10,584. The FN M249S Para is $11,094. The fascinating thing is that folks are actually paying that kind of money for these guns. You could buy literally twenty no-frills generic M-4 rifles for that. Then why are well-heeled gun nerds still scooping these things up? Because everybody and their grandmother has an M-4, while not very many folks can hit the range rocking their own M249S Para SAW. Despite our best efforts to the contrary, there yet remains not such a grand gulf between us grizzled American gun nerds and your typical fourteen-year-old girl. This gun looks cool, and that means we want it. My honest assessment—I love this thing. It needs to be full auto in the worst way, but the prejudices of the uninitiated quite effectively keep that from happening. However, it is still just great fun on the range. Recoil is not a real thing, and the gun runs like a typewriter. It’s also kind of cool to plop down in front of a good war movie and load belts in anticipation of a fun day at the range. The M249S Para is the epically cool gun you really didn’t realize you wanted.
FN M249S Para Specs
- Caliber: 5.56x45mm
- Operation: Gas-operated, piston-driven, closed-bolt, semi-automatic
- Magazine Capacity: 30-rd. magazine, 200-rd. belt
- Weight: 16 lbs.
- Overall Length: 31.5 (collapsed), 37 in. (extended)
- Trigger Pull: 8-15.5 lbs.
- MSRP: $11,094
- Contact: FN America
About the Author
Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He is airborne and scuba qualified and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…at the controls of an Army helicopter. After eight years in the Regular Army, Major Dabbs attended medical school. He works in his urgent care clinic, shares a business building precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989.
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